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PUBLIC OFFICIALS of the YEAR

Marybel Batjer 2017 HONOREE

Secretary of Government Operations, California


(Eryagon Eidam)

 

Marybel Batjer knows how to make big moves quickly. In just five weeks in 2013, she went from being vice president of Caesars Entertainment Corporation in Las Vegas to becoming California’s first-ever secretary of the Government Operations Agency (CalGovOps). As soon as she arrived, she was given a mandate by Gov. Jerry Brown to begin a prompt overhaul in how the nation’s largest state government operates. But Batjer, who at age 62 has advised two other governors and been a Pentagon insider, knows how to move deliberately as well -- she has run the professional equivalent of a marathon or two already in her career. “You have to set yourself in a pace or cadence where you’re not trying to boil the ocean,” she says. “You’re not trying to learn the depth of everything -- but you’ve got to get on top of everything quickly.” 

In her four years heading up CalGovOps, she’s tackled California’s slow-moving bureaucracy head-on by shaking up the state’s hiring practices and project management. She is redesigning a personnel system she says has been “stuck in the last century,” with individual hires taking as much as a year and employees working in walled cubicles with outdated computers. That’s completely unappealing, she says, to a generation raised online. “People who are used to everything at the tip of their thumbs on their smartphones, they walk into a state office building and they’re taken back 30 years,” Batjer says. 

One way Batjer has changed the hiring process is by revamping civil service exams. More than 200 of these are now online in California, and Batjer wants to simplify things even more by consolidating exams for similar jobs offered by different state departments. She’s pushing to eliminate tests altogether for some licensed professionals, such as lawyers and doctors. And once candidates are hired, she is making sure their work environment is more responsive to the expectations of a younger generation. She has modernized employee orientation and made leadership training mandatory for supervisors.

But perhaps the biggest change under Batjer has been in the state’s IT department, where projects have historically run over time and over budget. To combat that, CalGovOps worked with the tech advisory group Code for America to introduce a new system that launches projects in stages. Known as agile project management, the system requires departments to hit specific benchmarks prior to moving ahead, such as successfully testing a procedure before applying it statewide. It sounds obvious, but for California, it is something new. The idea, says Batjer, is to “fail fast,” so that departments can find out in a matter of weeks -- rather than years -- if an idea needs to be reworked. The new approach is being tested on the state’s 20-year-old child welfare case management system, in which the traditional long-term contracting model is being dumped in favor of multiple contracts with vendors on shorter deadlines. This change has the eyes of the tech world and has made California the “epicenter of digital government services,” according to management expert Aaron Pava.

Recently, Batjer was preparing for a speech about agile management and asked her team what stood out to them during the transition. Surprisingly, it wasn’t any particular substantive change. It was the revolution in how decisions were made. “‘You made a decision. You said “yes,” and you said “yes” fast,’” Batjer remembers them telling her. “It’s a reminder that we do really cool things in government -- we just have to give people the ability to go do it.” 

 -- By Liz Farmer

 

See the rest of the 2017 public officials here.